The Christmas table | Faith and community

Carol Burow Gianforte for The Times Journal

A vision of Christmas around a beautiful dining table with loved ones over 60 years ago remains clear in my mind today. The warmth and love, the innocence of a child and perhaps the innocence of those 1950s years contribute to my magical memories. These are precious memories from my childhood.

For many Christmases my parents and I were guests of my mother’s brother and wife, Andrew and Elva Fadness. My parents and I would leave Racine early these Christmas mornings for the long drive to the village of Rio, Wisconsin. It was sure to be an enjoyable day for mom and for me. My mother’s sister, Aunt “Ing” (Ingeborg was her real name) and her husband Ben would be joining us from their farm in Jefferson County.

I must add, however, to be honest, that even at Christmas I know my dad was less than enthusiastic. Oh, he willingly went without complaint, but I imagine he was already planning his return to Racine before he even left the city limits. After waiting years to become a CPA and start his accounting business, he just watched the business grow. Accounting thoughts were paramount in his mind, and I’m quite sure that even if the governor of Wisconsin had been present at the Rio dinner table, he would have waited to return to Racine and his job.

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I can also assume that my father was less enthusiastic about the stories of Norway and Norwegian parents than he surely had to hear. Nonetheless, he and my uncle Ben, who had each grown up in heavily German communities, smiled tolerantly at the Norwegian exuberance they were sure to encounter during the day.

They knew, however, that mother, Aunt Ing and Uncle Andrew were very close. They had grown up in this small town, inhabited mostly by Norwegians, and indeed in this same house at 504 Lincoln Ave. It was a pretty, two-story white house with “gingerbread” on the upper gables. When my mother was a young child in the early 1900s, her brave, newly widowed, Norwegian immigrant mother moved her small family from a farm to this same house.

Christmas memories

I loved visiting my aunt and uncle over Christmas. First of all, I felt the admiration that mother and Aunt Ing had for Andrew and Elva. Andrew, like his sisters, had gone to college around 1920, a rare achievement at the time. He always wore a sophisticated Luther College ring. Andrew had gone to Madison Law School, returning to Rio to serve as a beloved and trusted lawyer.

Elva, unlike Fadness’s three dark-haired siblings, was a beautiful blonde Norwegian. She had graduated in the first nursing class from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was quite a distinction we thought. His regular, capable and down-to-earth manners have also earned our admiration and respect.

I also loved the Rio house itself at Christmas. Aunt Elva decorated it with beautiful Norwegian accessories throughout. Plus, with his permission, I was free to explore the entire fascinating house. There was not one, but two hidden staircases leading up to the first floor where beautiful but mysterious trunks and other artifacts resided in silence, brought back from Norway by our ancestors. There was a strong sense of beauty and family history in every inch of this house.

There was also a love of learning that permeated this house. Leather-bound books, numerous magazines, as well as Bible studies and devotions abounded. At the table, Andrew often cited these sources, adding interesting historical details that shed light on the circumstances of the day. And his explanations were not stifling, but scintillating that I have never heard of equal to this day.

My aunt and uncle had even gone far from Norway. Upon their return to Rio, they were greeted with receptions and introduced as travel speakers. Sometimes at this dining table they would read aloud letters from Norwegian relatives they had visited. (At that time, my father was probably secretly reviewing his accounting affairs.)

Indeed, I didn’t mind being the only child in Rio on these Christmas days. My older cousins, Elva and Andrew’s sons, Peter and John, had been in the Armed Forces for many of those years. I was surely loved, but somehow, even as a child, I felt it was an honor and a privilege to be among such kind and accomplished people.

But perhaps best of all, my aunt’s delicious Christmas dinners seemed to emerge effortlessly from her neighboring kitchen. The dining table would be set with its fine china and silver and with my favorite salt and pepper shakers in the world, a pair of porcelain Siamese cats. There would be mounds of mashed white potatoes, ham or turkey with dressing, and Elva’s homemade applesauce, pickles and delicious buns.

Andrew would start with prayers in Norwegian. Elva would finish by serving a delicious pie or pie. The dining room clock on the sideboard would strike its soft tones. And I would believe that these moments together would last forever.


But how quickly those childhood years have faded. By the time I left for college in 1966 and got married in 1970, the trips of those of us who had previously been invited to this dining table became less frequent. Now Peter and John were at this table with their families, listening to stories of Norway, history and faith. And mysteriously, the roads to Rio were getting longer and harder to navigate.

One by one, these former guests were called to another table, including my dear parents. (My father never failed to disguise his private accounting thoughts.)

Our host Andrew and our hostess Elva were due to leave when they were 90, along with the untimely death of their son Peter.

Now near the turn of the century, the home at 504 Lincoln Ave. stood without its owners needing to be dismantled after being as a living part of the Fadness family for nearly 100 years. It was time for my cousin John to ask his brother Peter’s children and his two daughters, Sarah Fadness and Jennifer Fadness, what treasures they hope to receive from home.

But when it came to Jennifer, it wasn’t a Norwegian souvenir she was asking for. Instead, it was just the massive dining table, complete with its chairs and sideboard, that this young lady asked to receive. Just as I had cherished those moments around the festive table, she too didn’t want to leave those childhood memories behind.

And it made it all the more painful for Jennifer to realize that she was not to have her wish. His father was holding on. As a student with no prospect of a permanent address for some time, the dining set had to be sold. The day of the auction arrived and Jennifer couldn’t look.

A special phone call

It was a few years later that an amazing call came for Jennifer. The owner of the table no longer wanted them, neither the chairs nor the sideboard. Shocked that her love for the table had been known and remembered, Jennifer knew that now she just had to have it. He seemed to be waiting for her. With his sister Sarah, the asking price has been met.

And that’s how the precious dining table, chairs and sideboard now resides in Jennifer’s house. On her first Christmas there, she was greeted with utter astonishment by her parents and their tears. A young woman’s love for her grandparents and the precious moments they shared together around a dining table had saved him for the family.

Now, every Christmas, a beautiful dining table is set with the best porcelain and a pair of porcelain Siamese cats adorn its center. A range of delicious dishes including Elva’s delicious pickles and rolls are served. Norwegian tales still pop up. The buffet clock strikes to signal the precious hours that have elapsed.

Perhaps just a vision is seen of Andrew taking his place at the head of the table and Elva entering the kitchen with thin cups of coffee in hand. Indeed, everyone is still present at this table for another Christmas together.

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